This is what a broken internet feels like

Google protests SOPA/PIPA

Yesterday, thousands of sites participated in an online protest to raise awareness about two pieces of anti-piracy legislation making their way through Congress. The bills in question, best known as SOPA and PIPA, are often said to “break the internet.” The phrase appears frequently in both academic and journalistic contexts and is used about as often by supporters of the legislation as opponents.

And, yet, in spite of the proliferation of the phrase, critics struggle to describe how a “broken” internet will look, feel, or function differently from the (presumably unbroken) internet their readers use everyday. Sure, you can spend a few hours browsing through countless youtube videos, earnest comment threads, detailed expert analyses, and even a flowchart – but what would this regulation feel like?

ICE/DHS seized site, blacked out Wikipedia

Blocking access to all of Wikipedia’s English-language articles was a powerful awareness-raising tactic but it more closely resembled the Department of Homeland Security’s habit of seizing domains than the enforcement techniques described in SOPA or PIPA. Unlike the digital crime scene tape employed by the DHS, enforcement in SOPA and PIPA follows what Tarleton Gillespie calls “a strategy of forced invisibility.” Today, a link appears in Google searches; tomorrow, it doesn’t.

Darken this photo

Flickr approached the day of protest differently from its peers. Rather than blackout its logo (like Google) or its content (like Reddit), Flickr built new functionality into its software that enabled users to censor each other:

“Flickr is letting members darken their photos — or the photos of others — for a 24-hour period to deprive the web of the rich content that makes it thrive. Your symbolic act will help draw attention to this issue and let others know about the potential harmful impacts of these bills.” — Zack Sheppard, Flickr blog, January 18, 2012

By mid-afternoon, Flickr users had darkened over 200,000 photos, including (for a limited time) all of the photos on The White House stream.

White House Flickr photos censored

Flickr’s participatory tactic shifted the affective timbre of the protest from anger at a denial of access to uncertainty at a loss of control. Whereas the blacked-out Wikipedia asked a simple – perhaps hyperbolic – question, “What if the U.S. government blocked this site?”, Flickr forced users to critically consider their expectations regarding the stewardship of photos they upload.

Positioned as both censor and censored, users collectively acted out a possible enforcement scenario. As the day wore on and unwitting users encountered their darkened photos, hundreds took to a thread on the help forum to express their support, frustration, glee, anger, and utter confusion during the protest.

“I fully support the cause, just not the means by which I am being force to get involved[.] Choosing to black out my photos is a decision for me to make, not for Flickr to allow others to do so without my consent[.] I understand and accept a server error that disables my photos. But not an deliberate act like this.” — Jericho777, January 18, 2012

For the thousands of users who found their photos darkened, Flickr’s protest software provided an opportunity to experience “what censorship really feels like” – but the specific mechanics of the protest still fell short of simulating the “strategy of forced invisibility” inscribed in the proposed legislation. Under a regime governed by these laws, Flickr photos accused of copyright infringement would not appear darkened – they simply would not appear at all.

YouTube’s Content ID system provides an all-too-real example of internet regulation enacted in running code (with disastrous consequences for free speech.) Flickr’s software-assisted protest of SOPA/PIPA suggests that simulation might provide a powerful tactic for engaging with proposed media regulation in the future. By producing software that simulates the effect of a given piece of legislation, critics can move past vague hyperbole (“SOPA will break the internet”) to demonstrate how it will actually feel to use the internet under the proposed regulatory regime.

(Cross-posted to Hacktivision.)

Infrastructures to think with

World Wide Web at Breakfast

For most of the internet’s history, the difference between a service (e-mail) and service provider (Hotmail) has been fairly clear. If you don’t like Hotmail for some reason, you don’t have to opt-out of e-mail altogether. Instead, you can create a new account with a different service provider and send a mass message to all of your friends. Once you’re certain that everyone has your new address, it’s curtains for Hotmail.

The recent turn toward highly-integrated, centralized “platforms” like Facebook and YouTube has muddied this picture. There is no gateway nor common protocol for exchanging friend requests between Facebook and Google+ like there is between Hotmail and Gmail. If I post a video to Vimeo or, it isn’t going to show up in a search on YouTube. In a break from tradition, these service providers and the services they provide are tightly interwoven and difficult to pull apart.

The turn away from transparency leaves researchers with some tricky new challenges. First, what is meant by the term “platform” exactly and how is it different from a service provider? Second, how do we study these spaces if we can’t parse out the provider from the service?

YouTube embed error message

Last year, Tarleton Gillespie examined the strategic use of the term “platform” by YouTube to appeal simultaneously to multiple audiences with different needs and values. Users, advertisers, professional media producers, and government regulators each understand the term “platform” to mean something different: a populist forum, two-sided market, commercial channel, or impartial carrier. As long as “platform” retains this ambiguity, it affords YouTube and others an advantage in both the marketplace and regulatory arena. They can benefit financially from popular media practices like vidding while at the same time avoiding responsibility for protecting participatory cultures from spurious copyright claims.

Though these service providers have proven themselves unreliable stewards of popular discourse, their “platforms” are nevertheless powerful tools to enable, circulate, and augment participatory culture civics. To better understand this tension between popular use and commercial interest, we need to extract the service from the service provider, an analytical practice that Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker called “infrastructural inversion.” Rather than look only at the content of tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook statuses, we need to find ways to access the tangle of technologies and institutions that undergird these phenomena.

From the outside, the infrastructures of highly-integrated services like Twitter or Facebook are almost totally obscured. Users and researchers can only guess at the internal structures of these “black boxes” by poking at the box – either with a web browser or through the public API – and examining what comes out. (For a fine example, see Scott Smitelli’s systematic analysis of YouTube’s copyright filters from 2009.) But inductive exploration of black boxes is a slow, unreliable process with no guarantee that the infrastructure will remain stable from moment to moment. Time and again, service providers alter their infrastructure with little to no warning, causing headaches for the developers and users that rely on them.

Another way to study infrastructure is by building it. Matt Ratto offers the term “critical making” to describe reflexive technology projects that engage both the symbolic and material aspects of media in society. Critical making asks us to imagine how existing infrastructures might be altered, improved, or replaced. For a small scale example, the image below is a mockup of what a YouTube page might look like if all of the metadata and user commentary were preserved after a video is removed for copyright violation. (Currently, this information is also removed when the video is taken down.)

Mockup of an improved page for disabled YouTube videos (complete)

But critical making can occur at much larger scales as well. YouTube enables users to store, share, sort, comment on, respond to, and search for digital video. Numerous infrastructures might make this same set of verbs available. Miro Community uses free and open source software to build YouTube-like infrastructures for schools, local media, and other small civic organizations. Downloading their code and producing our own video infrastructure might yield a new perspective with which to examine YouTube itself. This approach is not about building an alternative to YouTube; it’s about focusing critical attention on infrastructure. What features would we want? What could we do with Miro Community that we can’t do with YouTube? What seems easy to implement and what seems difficult?

In 2010, a project called “Diaspora” raised $200,000 from 6,479 individual donors on Kickstarter to build a decentralized social network site with strong privacy controls. A year later, it has not attracted the volume of users that would make it the “Facebook-killer” some early supporters hoped it would be. But in a recent blog post titled, “We are making a difference” Diaspora’s founders point to features first publicly available in their 2010 alpha launch that are now implemented by Google+ and Facebook. Regardless of Diaspora’s future as a social network site, its mere existence contributed to shaping the infrastructures of more highly-capitalized, highly-visible social network sites.

Like Miro Community, Diaspora’s code is also freely available. Last winter, Sarah Mei changed the code so that users are asked to input their gender via an open text field rather than a drop-down menu (see above). This change means that users are not limited to a set of canned choices (“male” or “female”) but are free to identify however they wish. By building a feature of her ideal social network site in code, Mei crafted an experience for thousands of Diaspora users that calls into question the gendered assumptions embedded in most social network profiles.

Star wrote that infrastructure appears most readily when it breaks down. In our short study of the Living Room Rock Gods, for example, the importance of their messageboard infrastructure came to light only after their YouTube network was dismantled by copyright takedowns. Unfortunately, not every community will survive the devastating break downs that can happen when they depend on on private infrastructure. All of the organizations we’ve written about on this blog rely in one way or another on centralized “platforms” such as Vimeo, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. But how many are “disaster ready” should their preferred platform go down?

Critical making enables researchers to imagine and realize alternative infrastructures before disaster finds their fields of study. We cannot know what is happening inside of a “black box” like YouTube but building and playing with imitations, mockups, and experiments can provoke new ways of thinking and asking that draw attention to the crucial role of infrastructure in public discourse and civic engagement.

Putting down our Superpoke Pets

Why Us Google?

Last Friday, players of Superpoke Pets learned that Google plans to finally “retire” the game after winding it down over the past few weeks. Hundreds turned to a comment thread on Techcrunch to register their anger, sadness, and frustration at the decision.

I can't even get to sleep now I am so upset. I know it is just a game.. but this was a game I loved above all others I have ever played... :c ( This stinks!

this is the most hateful thing you could have done. millions of us on on this game. most people have disabilities and this is what they have. we have developed friendships. alot of people have spent tons on money on here. are you going to give them that back? but most of all you are taking away something that we have poured our heart and souls in. I have been on this game for over 3 years. I have some truly awesome people that I look forward to speaking to every day. I will drop all my google emails, change my servers and have over 3000 people on my yahoo account that will be more than happy to help me spread the word that google doesn't care about the people that put faith in them. does google kick dogs and steal candy from babies too?

Meanwhile, regular Techcrunch readers – many of whom currently work or aspire to work in social media – dismissed the concerns of the SPP players with comments ranging in tone from the smug and snarky to the downright hostile:

Favorite part of this post? The Farmville moms trolling TC.

I've spent Alot of MONEY on Superpoke Pets...personally i'd never admit to that.. lol.

I'm glad they killed it. People can stop playing stupid games and focus on more productive work.

Superpoke Pets is multiplayer online game that combines Tamagochi-like pet care mechanics with an open-ended scrapbooking system, opportunities for socializing with other players, and special contests, puzzles, and rewards. Most players join the game through Facebook but it is also accessible through MySpace or through the game’s homepage. Readers of this blog may know it for its brightly-colored relief efforts following the natural disasters in Haiti and Japan. Although it was developed and released by Slide in 2008, Superpoke Pets became a Google product in 2010 amid a flurry of excitement about social games like Farmville and Mafia Wars.

Compared to the tremendous scale, user adoption, revenue flow, and cultural impact of Zynga’s properties, Superpoke Pets is an uncontroversial failure. In Slide’s own words, it never “caught on as we originally hoped.” But these are not the metrics used by Superpoke Pets’ devoted players, many of whom are home-bound due to illness or disability:

This is not just a game! The other players are FAMILY!!

The unceremonious “deadpooling” of Superpoke Pets is one more example of a private organization providing space for community and creativity without taking responsibility for the continued stewardship of the public culture that flourishes there. To date, the tragi-heroic efforts of the Archive Team have saved an unknown percentage of digital materials imperiled by the closing of Friendster and Geocities, but these are preservation strategies – they cannot provide a new home for a living community.

Superpoke Pets players will soon be displaced from their preferred platform. Some will reunite on Facebook – perhaps as an outcome of their protest efforts – but many other social bonds will be permanently broken.

Why Us Google?

Despite these unfortunate consequences, this is not a clean-cut case of Google “doing evil.” As the Techcrunch reporting explains, the closure of Superpoke Pets is but one effect of a larger corporate restructuring. Without a technical and bureaucratic infrastructure to support it, there may simply be no servers or employees to keep SPP up and running. Absent the unlikely possibility that the game could be disentangled from Google and run as a non-profit player co-operative, it was inevitable from the start that the game would one day be put to rest. Should players be held responsible for planning accordingly? Were they foolish for choosing to explore, make friends, and commit the fruit of their creative labor to a doomed platform? Should they have closely read Slide’s (lengthy) Terms of Use before creating their accounts?

Alyssa's pet in its habitat

All servers crash, all businesses fold, and all social web services will one day disappear. The character of internet entropy is not “if” but “when.”

At this point, the available examples of services going offline are largely limited to corporations who have gotten it wrong but the ending of MMORPG Tabula Rasa provides an instructive exception.

Running of out money and unable to sustain the game, the development team at Destination Games designed a spectacular final scenario in which the world is destroyed according to its internal narrative logics – evil aliens overwhelm the resistance once and for all. They encouraged players to log in to the game and actively participate in its final moments. This arrangement gave dedicated players an opportunity to role-play up to the very last moment. One character might die valiantly attempting to forestall the inevitable while another hangs back to chat with friends as the carnage unfolds. Those present on the final day reported feeling “strangely moved” by the experience. It was world-appropriate and player-approved.


An apocalyptic invasion of killer aliens would be a strange conclusion to the sunny Superpoke Pets, but its dedicated players deserve a meaningful closing ceremony of their own. On a petition to Save Superpoke Pets circulating since June, players emphasize the time and care they’ve invested in the development and decoration of their pets’ habitats. Rather than flip the switch, bringing the world to an abrupt stop, Google should use this information as a starting point for designing a respectful end to the SPP world. How different would players feel if Google offered to host and promote a memorial scrapbook of all the lost pets and habitats on Picasa?

HPA on YouTube

Many of the organizations we discuss on this blog depend on services like YouTube and Facebook for outreach and mobilization. In the moment, these platforms may seem invicible but the experience of Superpoke Pets players highlights their fundamental instability. What will happen when they are no longer profitable, outpaced by newer technologies, or sold to different owners?

Start-up culture, as the name implies, is all about a company’s early stages. There is a lengthy glossary of terms to describe a new service’s first steps – “stealth mode”, “private testing”, “public beta” – but almost nothing is said about their middle-age and retirement. What if equal attention were dedicated to designing meaningful, respectful end-of-life scenarios?

What would happen to the web if users started to demand that services outline a “twilight mode” or “deceleration strategy” before they agreed to sign up?

Perhaps a revolution is not what we need

Malcolm Gladwell joins a rising chorus of skeptics in his latest piece for the New Yorker, Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. Responding to what he calls an “outsized enthusiasm” for social media technologies as activist tools, he argues that the weak ties enabled by services like Twitter cannot inspire the kind of commitment and bravery required of “high-risk activism” like the civil rights movement.

It’s a compelling argument and, to his credit, Gladwell works hard to name the sources of this “enthusiasm”. Among his slacktivist hall of shame: oversold “Twitter Revolutions” in Moldova and Iran, massive awareness campaigns on Facebook, and the Legend of the Stolen Cellphone (as told by Clay Shirky).

Despite careful attention to some very real weaknesses of network activism, Gladwell’s argument suffers from a lack of detail in two important areas: technology and history.

What is “Twitter”?

Three different Twitter clients

Twitter is the representative social media technology throughout most of Gladwell’s article. But as an admitted non-user, Gladwell overlooks features and user scenarios that would add a critical complexity to his argument. Like email or the telephone, Twitter is a non-prescriptive communication platform. Each user experiences “Twitter” differently depending on the time of day and frequency she checks her feed, the other people she follows, and the interface(s) she uses to access the network. Because of this flexibility, norms emerge, mutate, collide, and fade away among Twitter users with a fluidity that may not be easily apprehendable to a non-user like Gladwell.

Twitter may feel like a new phenomenon but listen closely and you will find echoes of older technological paradigms at its borders. A Twitter feed is expressed using the same protocols that syndicate blog content and its famous 140-character limit ensures compatibility with a text messaging standard from 1985. These design decisions afford Twitter data a powerful mobility. You can subscribe to a Twitter feed with an blog reader and send a tweet from any old mobile phone. Technically speaking, there is little “new” about it.

Although Andrew Sullivan and others initially reported that the 2009 protests in Iran were coordinated by Twitter, it turns out that most of the Twitter activity was taking place in Europe and the U.S.. This narrative meets the needs of Gladwell’s argument – Twitter use did not contribute to direct action on the streets of Tehran – but misses an opportunity to investigate an odd parallel: thousands of people with internet access spent days fixated on a geographically-remote street protest.

Who was that fixated population? Amin Vafa suggests that young diasporic Iranians like himself (“lucky enough to move to the US back in the late 1980s”) may have played a critical role in the flurry of English-language activity on Twitter. He recalls obsessively seeking information to retweet, “I knew at the time it wasn’t much, but it was something.” Messages sent among family and friends within and without Iran provided countless small bridges between the primarily SMS-based communication paradigm in Iran and the tweet-based ecology of the US/EU.

Such connections among far-flung members of Iranian families represent strong ties of a type similar to those that Gladwell admires in the civil-rights movement. And Vafa’s experience suggests that the specific technological affordances of Twitter enabled people to exercise those ties on a transnational scale. This is not to recommend either Twitter or SMS as effective tools for organizing an uprising (when things get hectic, cell phone service is the first to go) but instead to highlight the critical importance of including technical detail in any discussion of social media activism.

What is “the civil-rights movement”?

Leaves blowing away

Gladwell presents the civil-rights movement as a touchstone for “traditional” activism. In vivid narrative passages, he recounts moments of breathtaking heroism among black activists in the face of hate, discrimination, and brutality. This bravery, he argues, was inspired by strong local ties and enabled by support from hierarchically-structured organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. The movement, as he finds it, was “disciplined”, “precise”, and “strategic”; systematically mobilizing thousands of participants in the execution of long-term plans toward well-defined goals. “If you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment,” he concludes, “you have to be a hierarchy.”

Absent from this discussion, however, is consideration for the role of history in our present-day understanding of the civil-rights movement. During a visit to our research group last week, Steven Classen reminded us that our cultural memory of the civil-rights era is built on an incomplete record. Civil-rights activism was, in Gladwell’s terms, “high-risk” activism and carried the threat of injury or death. For this reason, activist communication was covert and empheral; the kind that does not leave traces to be collected and preserved in an archive.

Before the civil-rights movement can provide data to support an analysis of hierarchical activist organizations, consideration must be made for the thousands of “silent heroes” whose whose risks and labor were not recorded in any official history. Classen’s interviews and archival research revealed an enlarged history of the civil-rights movement in which the highly-visible actions of centralized organizations were accompanied by small acts of resistance among seemingly autonomous groups in rural communities throughout Mississippi. How should researchers account for these gaps and discrepancies? In spite of the sheer quantity of data produced by today’s social media use, there will always be aspects of social movements that are lost, forgotten, obscured, and excluded.

The same risk of injury that once obscured many human stories from the dominant history of the civil-rights movement is fundamental to Gladwell’s categorization of different types of activism. On one hand, he is right to distinguish “high-risk” activism like the civil-rights movement from comparatively safe acts like joining a Facebook Cause but when he writes that, “activism that challenges the status quo […] is not for the faint of heart”, he seems to imply that violence is a necessary condition for effecting social change. In response, Linda Raftree recalls the nerve-wracking experience of carrying a politically-themed t-shirt through the streets of El Salvador in the early 1990s. The very same act that seems innocuous to a U.S. citizen can be extremely risky within a different political regime. As social media networks and their users increasingly cross national boundaries, the line between “high” and “low” risks will blur. Depending on one’s geographic, cultural, and religious position, participation in social media activism may involve considerable risks: social ostracization, joblessness, displacement, or spiritual alienation.

What works?

Screenshot from an It Gets Better video

The most hierarchical organizations in the civil-rights movement focused on (and succeeded in changing) the most hierarchical problems they faced: discriminatory laws and policies. But racism is not a highly-structured problem. In fact, racism is a dispersed, slippery evil that circulates, mutates, and evolves as it moves through groups of people across time and space. The hierarchical civil-rights movement defeated Jim Crow, an instantiation of racism, but could not eradicate racism itself.

Perhaps network problems like racism require non-hierarchical, network solutions. Stetson Kennedy’s “Frown Power” campaign of the 1940s and 1950s was an effort to address racism in a network fashion. To combat everyday racism, Kennedy encouraged anti-racist whites to respond to racist remarks simply by frowning. Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project is a similar present-day example. Angered and saddened by the persistence of homophobic bullying among high school students, Savage asks queer adults to speak directly to victimized teens using web video. Both campaigns are activism for the “faint of heart”. They effect a slow, quiet change rather than large-scale revolution.

And maybe a focus on outcomes is what this conversation needs. Creating a hard distinction between “traditional” activism and “social media” activism is a dead end. Whether the medium is Twitter, pirate radio, a drum, or lanterns hung in a Boston church tower, “real world” activism depends on the tactical selection of social media technologies. Rather than fret about “slacktivism” or dismiss popular new tools because of their hype, we should be looking critically at history for examples of network campaigns like Frown Power that take advantage of their culture and technological circumstances to effect new kinds of social change.

Tracing the traces in online spaces

Soldering Time Fun!

Each of this week’s recommended links is about getting down and dirty with the technological details of internet communication.

In a new paper, Geiger and Ribes offer a compelling picture of Wikipedia’s “vandal fighting” editors that largely departs from the existing literature. By engaging with the day-to-day practices of the vandal fighters, the researchers learned to make meaning of an overwhelming heap of Wikipedia data in order to reconstruct the scene of a malicious user being banned.

Joel Spolsky usually writes for an audience of computer programmers and this essay about character encoding is no exception. In and among the technical details, however, Spolsky’s history of the digitized alphabet is a parable about the growing pains of a global computing network. Two hexadecimal bytes represent 255 unique values: plenty of space for American engineers to store 26 lowercase letters, 26 uppercase letters, 10 Arabic numerals, and a handful of punctuation — but what happens when we start to trade files with colleagues overseas? How do today’s software designers account for the thousands upon thousands of characters used around the world?

Finally, Asheesh Laroia runs a fascinating workshop about web scraping at PyCon, the annual gathering of Python programmers. In this play-along-at-home presentation, he walks the audience through a variety of tools and techniques to automate data collection from nearly any resource on the web. Novice programmers should feel comfortable to jump right in. Laroia provides plenty of example code to play with.

  • Laroia, A. (2009) Scrape the Web: Strategies for programming websites that don’t expect it. [Video] PyCon, Chicago, May 8. Retrieved from:

(If you’re not yet a programmer but want to learn, Python is a great language for beginners. If you’re looking for an introductory book, try Think Python.)